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Thursday, July 26, 2012 - Page updated at 12:30 p.m.
UW works to simulate kidney, in hopes of improving drug trials
By Kibkabe Araya
Seattle Times staff reporter
Researchers around the country will soon begin to grow tissue cells inside three-dimensional chips, in hopes of mimicking any organ for drug testing, a revolutionary project aimed at taking humans out of the early phases of clinical trials.
A team of Seattle researchers will use the chips to simulate the kidney, an organ often susceptible to harm from drugs. So instead of using real human kidneys, they will grow a kidney model to see firsthand — without affecting people — the damage from a tested drug.
The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced Tuesday the recipients of the 2012 Tissue Chip Project Awards. The University of Washington is one of 17 research facilities to win the opportunity to test the new technology.
The UW is the only institution to study the kidney; other facilities, including Harvard University and MIT, will focus on organs like the heart and liver.
Researchers at the UW, including nephrologists, physicians, bioengineers, pharmacists and environmental-health researchers, plan to insert donated kidney cells from transplants or other procedures into the manufactured chip. Inside the silicone and glass chip, measuring 2 inches by 1.5 inches, chambers and channels give the architecture for the cells to simulate a human kidney.
"Most researchers usually grow it on surfaces like the Petri dish," said Dr. Thomas Neumann, CEO of Nortis, the chip provider and new company started by former UW faculty members. "We have to make it so the device is not attached to anything, so cells can behave like they do in the human body."
Collagen will help support the structure, and growth-hormone fluid will stimulate cell multiplication.
For a drug to be tested, the goal is for the simulated kidney to absorb the drug, show any adverse effects, and remove the toxins like a real kidney.
"Think of the chip as a scaffold," said Dr. Jonathan Himmelfarb, director at the Kidney Research Institute at the UW. "The device allows nutrients to go in and gets rid of waste, so it's a sophisticated device to allow us to do that. It will be a big challenge. It's one of the most complex organs in the human body."
The kidney, located in the middle of the back on each side of the spine, removes toxins from the blood. It has 30 different cell types, Himmelfarb said.
The project will allow researchers to test drugs in their initial stages to see if they pose a threat to the kidney. More than 30 percent of new medications fail in human clinical trials because they are classified as toxic, though they may have shown success in animal trials.
The tissue-chip experiment seeks to eliminate safety issues involving humans and save money by spotting possible toxicity before a drug proceeds to the next-stage trials.
Along with NCATS, the Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program is also sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. NIH plans to contribute $70 million over the next five years to fund all 17 projects. The amount going to the UW had not been announced as of late Tuesday.
Advancements in modern science may be exciting, but they can also be time-consuming. With such new research, Himmelfarb forecasts it will take at least two years, or 400 chips, for the researchers to perfect growing simulated kidneys that can withstand different drugs and last for 28 days. "We have a lot of work to do in the next couple of years," he said.
Kibkabe Araya: 206-464-2266 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kibkabe
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